In anticipation, here is an interview between Contini Art UK’s sales and marketing director, Diego Giolitti, and artist Omar Hassan where Omar discusses the partnership with Lyfebulb, his inspiration, and his Breaking Through exhibition.
Diego Giolitti: Welcome, Omar. I would like to start our conversation by talking about the upcoming event organized by Lyfebulb, the charity that has invited you to exhibit your work in a solo show in Manhattan, New York. What does this show mean to you as an artist? The fact that you are exhibiting in New York, and that you have been chosen by LYFEBULB to take part in this project? What are your expectations for the show? How do you see this experience unfolding and why did you agree to take part in the project?
Omar Hassan: New York is one of the world’s great capitals of the arts, having a solo exhibition here is really stimulating for me as an artist. The success and interest generated by my three previous exhibitions, that have been dedicated to my Breaking Through series, has created a level of expectation within the New York art scene, something that I am very flattered by and proud of. Above all, however, I am honored to have the opportunity to collaborate with Lyfebulb. Dr. Karin Hehenberger (the head of Lyfebulb) and I have many things in common, but two factors have really stood out for me. Firstly, of course, is the fact that we both have type 1 diabetes, and secondly is the passion that we both put into our work in order to have as many people as possible understand that having a chronic illness does not mean that you cannot go on living your life and achieving your dreams. Lyfebulb’s goal is to change the quality of life and thinking of those who suffer from a chronic condition for the better, and this is something I strongly support.
Having a chronic illness does not mean that you cannot go on living your life and achieving your dreams.
DG: Indeed, there is a clear connection between this exhibition and your past ones. I regard this upcoming exhibition in New York as the next step along a path that started with your solo show at ContiniArtUK in London, your representative gallery, where you first exhibited pieces from the Breaking Through series. I remember at the time that you said to me, ‘I feel that these works fully represent my current production, but I also see them as belonging to a specific phase of my career.’ These words implicitly expressed your wish not to be misrepresented or labelled by the public as ‘Omar, the artist-boxer’. Can you expand on why your art can not be labelled as the work of a boxer turned painter? Why should we regard such a description of your work as false, or too limiting?
OH: I have always said that I wanted to incorporate a very important aspect of my life into my artistic research: namely boxing, the sport that has given me so much on both a personal and educational level. I wanted to bring to light the concept that lies behind this sport which, for me, can be considered as a metaphor for life. In boxing, as in life, you are alone; boxing requires hard work and daily effort; when you are knocked down you must get back up on your feet and continue to fight. In terms of what is put across by the media, who provide a superficial insight into the work I have done with my Breaking Through series, it may lead one to closely associate the terms “artist” with “boxer”. However, I want to point out that I am not a Floyd Mayweather Jr who suddenly started painting. Rather, I am an artist who studied at the Brera Academy of Fine Arts, who carried out my own research in painting, and simply decided to incorporate a very important aspect of my life into my art. In addition, boxing works well in terms of synthesizing a pictorial gesture with a strong visual impact, demonstrating the coherence of these paintings as a whole; in the sense that they belong to the same creative phase in my work. I am saying this without wishing to push the parallels too far, but we have had Fontana’s cuts and Pollock’s drippings, so why not Hassan’s punches? These synthesizing gestures can work, but only when they are contextualized within the broader framework of an artist’s oeuvre. So I believe it is important to contextualize this phase of my career. But I also believe that anyone – from collectors to casual observers – can clearly see that I am not merely a boxer who uses his sport to paints pictures.
DG: This aspect is extremely important to me too and, as someone who has supported you since the beginning of your career, I want the public to know about it. I have watched your journey unfold and, especially in the past 2 years, I have witnessed a huge development, particularly in terms of technique. Thanks to a process of inner growth and maturation, your artistic identity has become even clearer, more distinct and, most importantly, more accessible. But we will get back to this point in a minute. Art is a message and can have an educational function, and I think that this aspect is very important in your case. Lyfebulb has chosen you because, among other reasons, through your artistic practice you have revealed something personal about yourself. Your Injections series directly references the fact that you have diabetes and, as previously mentioned, your Breaking Through series which clearly displays your love of boxing. Lyfebulb has chosen you so that you can be an example to others, showing them that, regardless of one’s initial situation, one can achieve anything in life. Each of us must find strength in his or herself and aim for his or her goal. Do you agree?
OH: Of course, that is what I meant when I was talking about boxing, but equally I do not presume to educate anyone. I believe in art being an experience that is part of our sensory and cognitive life. This is my motto. So I took facts and experiences from my life and turned them into something that the public could empathize with, something that others, too, could benefit from. Obviously I am honored to have been selected by Lyfebulb and I hope that I too can be an example (in the sense I have just explained) to young people and adults alike.
DG: Let us now talk about the use of gesture in your work. From an art theory perspective, it can be said that sign and gesture are the first steps towards the rationalisation of artistic production. Without the sign, comprehension is impossible. In my opinion, gesture has always been a dominant and fundamental element in your art. Of course, an artist’s technique and stance are a very revealing factor on which the resulting artwork depends.
OH: I have always been committed to keeping my painting contemporary and current. Nowadays it is very difficult to be original and contemporary with painting because of the amount of techniques which have already been explored throughout art history. Today, producing a painting means assuming a responsibility. I want to take this responsibility, I want to carry an artistic research through pictorial (and, in my case, primordial) gestures inspired by the works of the historical avant-garde as well as the new avant-garde in the last century. I have always tried to remain contemporary in my work through gestures that produce signs that lead to traces of the real. My approach has always remained the same ever since I started using cans of spray paint, the tools that originally inspired me to practice art and explore artistic expression. The can of spray paint became like a breath of life, bringing together my entire culture and tradition, leading me to more impetuous and instinctive gestures, like that of the punch in the Breaking Through paintings. This big punch is a simple (i.e., primordial) element. A punch has an incredible amount of concentrated energy that should not be considered in a negative light; it is both an acceleration of energy and a very fast movement.
DG: So, you do not want to make a distinction between sensation and thought. There is almost an element of spontaneous organization in what you do. The element of spontaneity.
OH: But my spontaneity is well thought-out.
DG: Do you mean that you deliberately channel your spontaneity?
OH: All of my work stems from an idea, from a concept; technique is never the starting point for me. I do not develop a concept after finishing the work; rather, the work is the result of the development of a concept.
DG: So there is a sort of balance between sensation and thought in your art, which is one of the hardest things to achieve for an artist. Another very interesting aspect of your work is its honesty – there is a part of yourself in your work, a part of your life. I am in love with your Injection painting titled “Self-portrait”, which has been included in this catalogue. I find it fascinating in that it is a reflection of your soul, of who you are as an artist. For me this piece depicts both the development of an idea, and the use of gesture, which is a truly distinguishing feature of your work. Something I have always wanted to know but was afraid to ask is, why this particular painting was the point when you said to yourself, ‘This is a portrait of myself’? Could you describe the painting and share something about the process that led you to its creation?
OH: I painted this work during the preparation for my exhibition at ContiniArtUK in London. A classical frame surrounds a white-on- white dotted background that took several days to complete. Later on I spray-painted a black dot in the middle of the canvas, a singular point from which the paint drips down to the bottom of the canvas. I entitled it “Self- portrait” because since the very beginning I regarded it as the last painting in my Injections series, as it is a chromatic and conceptual synthesis. This explains the use of black and white. Everybody has inside them two different parts, one for the entire world to see, the other only for themselves. I wanted to bring out both of these parts. “Self-portrait” explains this dualism: what you see is not always the reality. Because it took me such a long time to paint the white element of the canvas and only only a few minutes to paint the small black dot, in that painting I am not the black dot but I am the white mass around it. It means that sometimes the things that stay in the background, the things you don’t see, are the most important. The essential is often invisible to the eye…
DG: This is a wonderful metaphorical translation of your self-portrait. The first time I saw that painting, with its title, I did not think it portrayed your physical features, your mood or your personality. After all, as I know you well, you are a cheerful person and could never be a black dot (an orange one, perhaps, since orange is your favorite color). You certainly know that white light is made of all the colors, while black neutralizes them all. I thought that this painting portrayed the difficulties of your artistic journey; I thought it represented a farewell to a specific expressive form (Injections) and the need to start a new phase. So, I interpreted it as an artistic transition. I am happy you said that because I feel that I managed to connect with your art and understand on a certain level, or at least I hope so. What do you want to achieve with this solo show in New York? What do you expect from it?
OH: I hope to expand my artistic horizons and start on a new path that will help me grow as an artist and as a person. I also hope that my experience in New York will be as stimulating as the one I had in London when I first exhibited at ContiniArtUK.
DG: Is there anything else you would like to say to your public? Anything that may help them to better understand you or your art, or that you just wish to emphasize?
OH: My motto is, ‘artistic research’. I will never be satisfied with a beautiful painting, I will always try to make more paintings, even worse ones, but I will never stop creating.
DG: What do you mean by ‘worse ones’?
OH: There is no guarantee that I will constantly improve, I do not presume to say that I will constantly improve; but I can certainly say that I will always try to do better.
DG: This is so beautiful, and you know, one of the things that I have always liked about you as an artist is that you do not settle for a style or form and reproduce it endlessly but, rather, you are constantly looking for new avenues to express your vision.